History Shows Christmas Can Be A Powerful Motivator On Capitol Hill Since George Washington's raid on Trenton, the words "Christmas," "Washington" and "crisis" have gone hand in hand.
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History Shows Christmas Can Be A Powerful Motivator On Capitol Hill

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History Shows Christmas Can Be A Powerful Motivator On Capitol Hill

History Shows Christmas Can Be A Powerful Motivator On Capitol Hill

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LAUREN FRAYER, HOST:

If Congress seems to have gotten more done in the last week than in the rest of the year, that may not be an accident. Christmas, or rather the possibility of missing Christmas, can be a powerful motivator on Capitol Hill. That's according to our NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving, the man we call Professor Ron.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE CROSSING" FILM)

RON ELVING, BYLINE: The first time the words Washington, Christmas and crisis all came together in our history was our first December together as a nation, 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence and the full-scale outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CROSSING")

JEFF DANIELS: (As General Washington) We became a nation on the 4th of July, six months ago.

ELVING: Things were not going well for General Washington and his ragtag colonial army.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CROSSING")

DANIELS: (As General Washington) Since then we have lost New York. Congress has fled from Philadelphia because we cannot defend it. We have lost every battle.

ELVING: But in the stormy darkness of Christmas night...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CROSSING")

DANIELS: (As General Washington) I propose that on the eve of December 25th, we cross the river, march on Trenton.

ELVING: To attack an enemy outpost.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CROSSING")

DANIELS: (As General Washington) And if God is with us, we'll take the whole lot of them.

ELVING: They surprised and overwhelmed the opposing troops, many of whom were still recovering from the indulgences of Christmas Day. It is said that Washington got his troops pumped up for this midnight outing with readings of a new pamphlet by Thomas Paine, called, "The American Crisis."

PETER BRESLOW: (Reading) These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of their country, but he stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

ELVING: It turns out the historical evidence for Paine's pamphlet actually being read to the troops on the banks of the Delaware that night is a little spotty, but we do know Paine's "Crisis" was in fact a part of George Washington's media mix. And the words themselves still stir American hearts, as they have in times of war and want for generations.

BRESLOW: (Reading) Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, yet we have this consolation with us that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

ELVING: When George Washington became our first president, we took a little time to establish the dollar as the currency for all states, but that got done over a Christmas session. For generations thereafter, Congress remained technically in session over Christmas, not out of disrespect, but just in case urgent business might require it. And the prospect of needing a Christmas session helped make the preceding weeks and months more productive. Deadlines, of course, are made to be stretched, and sometimes things got out of hand. Take the first Christmas of Lyndon Johnson's presidency in 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL NEWSREPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: Honorable wheat harvests are a way of life in the United States.

ELVING: The House got caught up wrangling over a foreign aid bill that included selling wheat to Russia, which in those days was still the Soviet Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL NEWS REPORT)

NEWSCASTER: American ships are to carry the grain, and government officials say there will be other benefits to the economy.

ELVING: Some members had already left town and had to be summoned back to muster the necessary votes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FESTIVE MUSIC)

ELVING: Johnson, who had spent more than 30 years toiling in the House and Senate himself, appreciated this special effort and threw a little Christmas party for the inconvenienced members.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

ELVING: But back in town, members felt entitled to speechify on the floor, prompting one of the few women in Congress at that time, Katharine St. George of New York, to suggest that they all just put their remarks in writing in the Congressional Record. Future generations yet unborn will be able to see them, she said, but those of us who are here on this Christmas Eve need not listen to them.

More recently, the notion of Christmas carols being sung on the Senate floor got real in the first year of President Obama's presidency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: I returned to speak to all of you about an issue that is central to that future, and that is the issue of health care. I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: President Obama's Affordable Care Act was passed on Christmas Eve of 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: The yeas are 60. The nays are 39. H.R.3590 has amended the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is passed.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: A few years later, conflicts between Obama and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives led to the so-called fiscal cliff. It was 2012. Obama had just been re-elected, and failure to strike a deal was about to cost taxpayers billions in spending cuts and tax increases. John Boehner, who was at the time the speaker of the House, exchanged offers and counteroffers with the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BOEHNER: Now, even if we did exactly what the president wants, we would see red ink for as far as the eye can see. Now, if the president doesn't agree with our approach, he's got an obligation to put forward a plan that can pass both chambers of the Congress.

ELVING: That showdown just five years ago kept a lot of people working in Washington straight through Christmas week and New Year's Eve until an agreement was struck. It might have gone down to the wire this year, too, but deals got done this past week and Congress finally got out of town.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS")

LIBERACE: (Singing) And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle.

ELVING: But I heard them exclaim as they flew out of sight...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS")

LIBERACE: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

ELVING: Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington.

FRAYER: In addition to Professor Ron, you heard WEEKEND EDITION producer Peter Breslow reading Thomas Paine, and Jeff Daniels playing George Washington in "The Crossing."

(SOUNDBITE OF LIBERACE'S "'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS")

FRAYER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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